Andrew Crowe is a best-selling author with a particular interest in nature. He has written for all ages about everything from seashells to spiders, insects to trees, birds to Buddhism. His latest award-winning book is Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors.

My parents emigrated from England to Australia when I was 17, but I stayed on at school in a boarding house till I was 18, which sounds grim but I was actually happy to have a year away from my parents. I went to school next to Tower Bridge in London and there wasn't a single blade of grass in the grounds so my connection with nature came later.

When I was 20, in the early 70s, I came to New Zealand by ship and fell in love with the country at first sight. I arrived in Auckland with almost no money and no idea what I was going to do. I hitchhiked around for several months, picking up work here and there. I picked fruit and planted trees and slept in my tent at night. I learnt a lot more doing that than I ever did at school.

Looking back, I think my parents felt a quiet despair about the path I was on, but I didn't listen much to what they had to say. I think they hoped I'd settle down, get married and work in a bank, do something normal, but their despair diminished over the years when they saw me make a living from writing. There's something about trusting your instincts. You can call it luck or grace - it is well beyond our ken, the thing that guides our lives.

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I felt a strong desire to make a home close to nature, so I lived in a cave for a while, on the edge of Whitianga Harbour on the Coromandel. It was on the crest of a ridge and made of soft ignimbrite rock. It had a fire and a chimney, windows and a door. It was halfway between a cave and a house and not much bigger than a tent. I could lie down, stand up, cook meals and write. I got so much joy out of simplicity.

To experience such a simple life, you realise how little you need. This gives a feeling of extraordinary wealth because you stop worrying about not having things and it gave me the sense of security to pursue a precarious way of making a living.

I wanted to learn how to survive in the forest from what I could find. I wasn't a hunter-gather exactly, because I'm a vegetarian, but I was a gatherer. When people suggested I write a book about it, I'd say, I haven't a clue how. I don't have a camera. I can't draw. I made all these objections but I was persuaded when someone suggested I start by writing something small. A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand started as a booklet and slowly became bigger. There have been 22 printings since it was first published in 1981.

I liked writing better than picking fruit or any other jobs I'd had. I enjoyed the whole process - the research, doing the drawings, taking the photos, putting it together until I had something I was happy with. So I kept on making books.

You could assume I'm Buddhist, considering I wrote a biography of the Dalai Lama, but I'm simply open to all religions because they point to something, although I'm more interested in what they point to rather than the religion itself. I was thinking how to approach the topic of spirituality for teenagers through somebody's life and the Dalai Lama popped into my mind. His story is amazing, the way he was chosen aged 4 to be the spiritual and political leader of his country. To go from village life to a palace, then the invasion of his country at 15, when he was asked to lead just as the Chinese were invading.

I knew I needed to meet him, but that's not easy. I wrote to his secretary in New Zealand who was sympathetic and introduced me to his secretary in Dharamshala, North India. We had a long talk, but he said, "Sorry, His Holiness is fully booked for the next six months." I said, "No problem, I can wait; I'll be researching nearby." Two weeks later there's an email saying there'd been a cancellation. "How long will I have?" I asked, imagining five or 10 minutes. "As long as you need," I'm told.

The Dalai Lama and I spoke for about an hour and it was the most extraordinary meeting of my life. He is such an amazing presence; even in a huge hall he filled it with his energy. There was so much love and power in the room, but it wasn't intimidating. There was no sense he needed to get to know me or suss me out; he approached me as a long-lost friend from the very first moment.

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Crowe's latest book, Pathway of the Birds, is about how Polynesians colonised the Pacific. Photo / Supplied
Crowe's latest book, Pathway of the Birds, is about how Polynesians colonised the Pacific. Photo / Supplied

During my survival experiments in the forest, I wondered how Māori had adapted from the tropics to a place where almost none of their traditional crops would grow. It was such a difficult climate but Māori did adapt and survived and flourished for hundreds of years thanks to their close observation of nature. I was sceptical of the idea that their ancestors had simply been blown off course while fishing, but was also puzzled by how the original voyagers actually navigated.

When an opportunity arose to join some friends sailing from the Marquesas Islands to Tahiti, in the Society Islands, it was too good a chance to miss. I'd previously visited Hawaii, looking at plants, when I realised there was something we weren't being taught. In spite of the distances between Hawaii, Tahiti, Aotearoa and beyond, I saw so many close connections in language and culture between Māori and Marquesans, people from Rapa Nui and Hawaiians.

All these questions were ticking away and, in part, led to my latest book, Pathway of the Birds, about how Polynesians colonised this vast area. An extraordinary feat. The Pacific Ocean covers about one third of the planet's surface, all that water with the continents just hanging around the edge. Europeans were sailing through for many years, originally looking for a short cut to Asia, and they took a long time to notice there were islands in it. Polynesians had a very different perspective; they did look for land and found almost every single bit.

I worked on that book for 15 years but I was turned down by almost every local publisher, twice by some of them. But I kept going and eventually it was published.

I'm always working on something, although I can't predict what's coming next. But I do know how important it is to have somebody urging you along, giving you encouragement at the right moment as you go through life. I really feel for children who don't have that at school or from their family. Everyone has so much potential, you just need to believe in yourself, and have other people show confidence in you. That's such an important thing.